Comment: Has Covid-19 exacerbated some of our worst xenophobic tendencies?

Recent incidents are a troubling manifestation of simmering sentiments.

Jane Zhang | May 15, 2021, 05:32 PM

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In the recent weeks, a number of attacks and outbursts have occurred against ethnically-Indian individuals in Singapore, with racist and xenophobic sentiments interwoven with accusations about spreading Covid-19.

Recent incidents

On May 2, a man who claimed to be Singaporean allegedly shouted racist and xenophobic comments at an Indian expatriate family taking a stroll through Pasir Ris Beach Park.

He reportedly shouted, "Bloody Indians go back, spreading virus here," repeatedly in their direction, and when confronted about his comments, declared that he is Singaporean.

He was caught on camera shouting, "You are coming here. You are spreading the virus."

He continued to yell at the father of the family, accusing him of not wearing his mask properly and of standing too close to him. The father of the Indian family appeared to be standing more than one metre away from the man and responded that his mask was only down because he was drinking water.

In another incident on May 7, a Singaporean-Indian woman was brisk walking with her mask lowered to her chin when she was accosted by a man.

The man allegedly started verbally abusing her and even used a racial slur towards her after she told him that she did not have her mask pulled up because she was exercising.

The man then ran towards the woman and kicked her in the chest, causing her to fall to the ground.

"Now my mum is afraid of taking a walk in her own country," the woman's daughter wrote on social media.

In the days following the racist physical attack, a number of ministers, as well as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, spoke out against it. MPs from both aisles have also spoken out against racism in parliament.

The police have since said that they are investigating the man involved in the Pasir Ris Beach Park incident, and have arrested the man who allegedly kicked the Singaporean Indian woman.

Are the recent cases extreme outliers?

Some might argue that the recent cases of physical and verbal abuse are extreme outliers, and that most people in Singapore don't agree with the actions of the perpetrators.

However, despite there being video evidence of the Singaporean man in the Pasir Ris Beach Park incident shouting and hurling baseless accusations of spreading Covid-19 at the Indian family, a number of netizens backed him up.

Some blamed the couple for engaging the man, calling them attention-seeking for filming the interaction and claiming that they were "provoking" him, despite the fact that the couple maintained their cool throughout most of the video.

An alarming number of people even applauded the man's behaviour, giving him kudos for speaking up.

While it is good that Singaporeans seemed to be far more empathetic toward the woman who was kicked and more critical of her attacker, the attack is a deeply troubling manifestation of simmering anti-foreigner sentiments.

Attacks are a manifestation of simmering sentiments

There has been a group of Singaporeans who have constantly voiced their unhappiness with government policies on foreign immigration.

Go to articles about essentially anything even vaguely connected to Indian expatriates in Singapore, and you'll find them flooded with comments calling for the abolition of CECA and complaining about the perceived overflow of "foreign talent", particularly from India, in Singapore.

The preoccupation with CECA could stem from Singaporeans' anger about income inequality in the city state and the perception that expat foreigners are pushing locals out of the job market. Some locals have also felt 'undervalued' and less important than foreigners in their own country.

Anger and frustration about the government's policies is often directed at the foreigners themselves.

The anger manifests as racist stereotypes, calls to "go back to India", and even invalidating comments about the authenticity of the citizenship of those who have opted to become Singapore citizens and call Singapore home.

Public health concerns are valid

Heightened fears surrounding Covid-19 has only exacerbated such sentiments.

During this pandemic, the daily Covid-19 update stories have been inundated with comments from netizens making their own connections between imported cases arriving from India and CECA, as well as lamenting imported cases from India.

It has also been common to see people in Singapore commenting on social media with completely unrelated gifs and photos of Indian people dancing or riding on buses, as a way of representing the individuals arriving in Singapore as imported cases.

All of this began happening even before India's second wave hit in late-March 2021.

There is an important difference, though, between being concerned about public health measures and perpetuating harmful xenophobic and racist rhetoric toward individuals of certain ethnicities and nationalities.

The fear of contracting Covid-19 and having a severe outbreak is valid; it is a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions, and we are all scared for ourselves and our loved ones.

Thus, asking for certain public health measures to be considered, such as temporarily stopping flights from countries facing severe Covid-19 outbreaks, could be considered reasonable.

As of May 14, India has reported 17,598 cases per one million people in the country's population, more than five times less than the U.S.'s 100,173 cases per one million people. Yet the scrutiny and anger in Singapore has, overall, not been directed at imported cases from places such as the U.S..

Shouldn't people also consistently ask for similar border restrictions for other higher-risk countries (as of May 14, the countries with the highest number of Covid-19 cases are the U.S., India, Brazil, France, and Turkey)?

Anger toward people of a particular descent is unfair

Of course, there have been far more imported cases arriving to Singapore from India than from just about any other country, which may account for some of the anger.

Speaking from personal experience, it has become rather easy for us to view Covid-19 cases — and imported cases in particular — as mere numbers that we read with frustration, as they indicate to us that the pandemic situation is not going away but, instead, getting worse.

But it would serve us well to remember that each imported case is, in fact, an individual who is coming to Singapore for a reason — whether they are a university student who grew up in Singapore and are returning here to reunite with their loved ones after being separated for more than one year (which is similar to the experience of many overseas Singaporeans who have returned) or a migrant worker arriving to start a job in order to support his family through this economically-difficult period.

It is also possible that some of us may find ourselves subconsciously thinking, "The imported cases got Covid-19 because they were irresponsible in their home countries," or "They brought the virus here because they were not careful enough."

However, if we are able to understand and accept that there are many people in Singapore who have gotten Covid-19 despite carefully and responsibly following the public health regulations in place, why are we unable to extend that same understanding to foreigners?

If someone is breaking public health standards and endangering others — such as breaching their SHN or not wearing a mask properly — then they should be held accountable for their actions, no matter their ethnicity, nationality, or any other other identity marker.

But if they are taking the necessary precautions — serving their SHN, honestly reporting their travel history and symptoms, and overall engaging in the good public health practices expected of all of us — then it is extremely unjustified to direct hate at such individuals on the basis of ethnicity or nationality.

Fear is not an excuse for racism and xenophobia

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been multiple instances of anti-Asian hate crimes— many of which have been related to Covid-19 — that have occurred overseas.

Generalisations about Covid-19 — calling it the "China virus" and making the false assumption that people of Asian descent were more likely to be spreading it — were also rife.

In April 2020, two Caucasian woman allegedly shouted "coronavirus" repeatedly at two female Singaporean and Malaysian university students who were on their way to get groceries.

The incident soon got physical after one of the Caucasian women threw a speaker at the Singaporean student's head and she punched her back in self-defence. The Caucasian woman then punched and kicked the Singaporean.

Despite being attacked, the Singaporean student said that after posting the video of the assault, a number of people blamed her for starting the fight, and said that most of the comments were telling her and her friend to go home [to Singapore and Malaysia].

These hate crimes, which often involved people making unfounded accusations of usually-East Asian-looking individuals spreading Covid-19, have been met with horror and anger by many in Singapore, and rightfully so.

Yet, the occurrences of the past two weeks here show that it is not impossible for these kinds of things to take place in Singapore, and that the sentiments have already taken root among some.

Public health concerns during times like this are understandable, but there's a difference between reasonable fears, and unfounded generalisations that perpetuate xenophobia and racism.

While we cannot control how everyone thinks, we can be clear that such behaviour towards minority groups, especially in multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore, is not okay.

Particularly worrying for Singapore

When harmful stereotypes like these are being perpetuated, this then creates a climate of fear for minorities, who may worry about being confronted or attacked in their own home country.

If this kind of rhetoric about foreigners (and ethnically-Indian individuals in particular) continues, what will become of Singapore's multiracial fabric, and how will minorities living here — both locals and foreigners who call Singapore home — feel like they belong?

As co-chair of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce Lawrence Wong said in Parliament on May 11:

"Remember, the virus does not respect ethnicity or nationality. This is not a Chinese virus, or an Indian variant.

This is a global pandemic; the virus and its variants are out there everywhere in the world. So there is no place for discrimination, racism or xenophobia here in Singapore."

We need to distinguish between valid fears and our own flawed assumptions, develop empathy for the realities that others are going through, and speak out against xenophobic and racist sentiments held by those around us.

We can do better.

Top photos via Parveen Kaur / Instagram and courtesy of Mothership reader.